Archive for ‘Apocalypse Series’

Apocalypse 21: Arts and Crafts

By , 8 April, 2009, 3 Comments

In this ongoing series on news business models, I’ve maintained that journalism is a profession. To me, a profession means work with a public value, a defined code of conduct or methodology, and a mentality of prizing institutional goals over individual ones. Journalists in the mainstream media made the mistake of eroding the first criterion over the last two decades with lots of non-public-interest infotainment; citizen-media activists are eroding the other two by thumbing their nose at codes of conduct and staking their business models on individual permalancers.

One of my professors, Jonathan Knee, has written about the downgrading of banking from a professional calling to a trade with the rise of transactional over client models of doing business and defines a profession by the same three metrics I do:

“A profession is a job that owes obligations to society at large...It is the antithesis of the idea of a profession to argue that the standards to which investment banks once held themselves was simply an attribute of a grand financial bargain…our society’s increasing emphasis on celebrity, self-realization and personal wealth over more communal callings has reduced the social benefits associated with pursuing a higher professional calling.” (x)

I asked Knee the other day if he thought journalism was a profession and he, a media banker, said “No.” He thought it was an art, which I might define as self-realization that explicitly defies codes of conduct, and which might have some social benefits that are external to the purpose with which it is pursued. We fund the arts because we like to see art in museums, but the artists don’t produce explicitly for society’s benefit or according to professional norms. The models for journalism we hear floated most often these days–nonprofit trusts, licensing fees or micropayments–all mimic the way we finance the arts.

Not only is this conceptually problematic, but financially, it won’t work. Because the arts are non-professional, most artists do something else on the side to pay their bills, unless they are among the lucky few to get a big break (see above: individual self-realization over communal goals). Having every journalist do something else on the side would overtime erode their expertise about their beat and their commitment to journalistic codes of conduct; because good reporting (which, see above, is a public good) depends on those practices, turning journalists into artists is bad news.

There is perhaps a third way: journalism as craft, journalist as artisan. A craft is a job with a defined skill set, some training/apprenticeship and some social utility, but no obligation towards institutions. That’s a pretty solid conceptualization of how reporting should work, but I’m not yet sure what it means as a business model. My hunch is that it leads us to finance individual stories, instead of publications, but to finance stories by journalists who do reporting all the time, even if they migrate from outlet to outlet. As always, any thoughts on where this leads are most welcome.

Apocalypse 20: Some ruccus in the new media ranks

By , 29 March, 2009, No Comment

As a silver lining to the recessionary cloud, I’ve been trumpeting the boisterous and robust debates taking place among newshounds over new business models for media.

Among the internet evangelists, these debates are usually taken as signs of professional media’s last breaths before the dictatorship of the proletariat (aka a citizen-driven “gift” economy) comes to save us. So of course, the internet evangelists yippee’ed at the announcement from the HuffPo that they are creating a fund to finance investigative reporting that will then be gifted to anyone who wants to run ads against it on their own site. They yippee’ed again at the new bill in Congress to make it easier for news outfits to claim nonprofit status.

Now all of these ventures, while helping to take down the existing structures of professional media, take their cues from the same value system that professional media folk claim–that journalism has a civic role to play, as a watchdog on those in power, as a forum for debate and a cultivator of public opinion, etc.

Yet the project of dismantling the mainstream media and claiming the legal rights of journalists on behalf of a citizen-activist runs directly counter to that value system. The civic function of journalism is enshrined in constitutional laws that, with the rise of computers, have lost their clarity: is a blog free Speech or free Press? There are ways to untangle that mystery, but most of them, as I’ve angsted before, seem to lead us into anarchist terrain. My angst seems justified in light of this essay in Slate–the author thumbs his nose at any democratic use for journalism and bemoans the journalism-as-civil-society theory as an old media meme.

The real battle, it seems, is not old media vs. new media but, as I continue to argue, institutionalism vs. individualism. If you think (as I do) that journalism has a civic value, then your solutions to the industry’s current struggles might turn towards to redefining journalism for the digital age in a way that separates those who report (ie journalists) from those who just make noise. If you think the journalism-as-public-service argument is maudlin junk, you might simply hail the demise of journalism as an organizational category.

While these two camps of new media thinkers duke it out, there’s room for old media organizations to experiment–I’ve blogged before that I think the NY Times is onto something in its merger with the Herald Tribune. That merger takes another small step today–the Times rebranded the IHT’s website as the “Global Edition of the New York Times” months ago; now they have rebranded the international pages of the Times’ own site with the IHT logo.

Obviously, a website redesign does little for the Times’ bigger problems, but the merger yields a reporting structure that any future model should take into account.

Apocalypse 19: The Bright Side

By , 19 March, 2009, No Comment

Not a week goes by these days without some casualty of the journalism apocalypse. Unlike so-called media pundits who simply make money celebrating the demise of media, I am generally saddened to see good papers die. Not because I have any attachment to dead trees, but because I believe the future of news media–digital and collaborative as it will no doubt be–has to involve the expertise of the people in those newsrooms.

Startups should lead old-timers in the right direction (more opinion, more interactivity, more transparency) but not disparage them. A scalable replacement for the social function of print will come from an organization with some scale that merges with some smaller newbies or a newbie that acquires scale by harnessing the expertise and resources released by the old organizations. The assets and talent underneath the managerial fat at many of these papers cannot be allowed to go gently into the night, and laughing at newspaper folk does not exactly build a base for future collaboration.

Some new media evangelists are better than others at being modest. Clay Shirky’s poignant, stunningly written indictment of poor managers and how they got us to this point gets my approval because he stops short of the self-congratulation that seems to accompany others’ writings on this topic. He admits he doesn’t have a better solution, yet.

Some print outfits are better than others at making the transition. The FT’s decision to launch its own content aggregator for businesspeople is a good experiment, though it’s not entirely original–BusinessWeek did the same months ago. The policy journals–the Atlantic, Foreign Policy–are doing a great job turning their websites into a collection of blogs to which the print ‘zine can be a collector’s bonus. A handful of daily papers–the Boston Globe, the SF Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian–are building websites that can become standalone hyperlocal offerings, if only they could take the leap and make these sites the primary offering. Unfortunately, the papers that are actually forced by their finances to make the leap to killing their print product don’t have such developed web products to fall back on, and they often just close up shop.

That makes the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and its replacement by the all-online, especially notable. Seattle’s Congressman, Jim McDermott, was here on Cappuccino some weeks back brainstorming funding models to keep papers like his afloat in print, because, at the time, he seemed quite convinced that the Internet just couldn’t fill the same role. Now, he’s a blogger who says the changing times have all the progressive potential of the 1960s. Whoa. Commenters are beating up on him for taking a job writing for the PI site, since the old paper was fairly sympathetic to him and it seems like backscratching but I’ll come to his defense: give credit to a Boomer who can get his head around change this quickly. And give credit the new for being exactly the kind of expert-audience collaboration we want to see online.

Of course, making a website like this pay for itself is still a challenge. The Pew Project’s most recent “State of the News Media” report says we’re spending too much time on models that won’t work (micropayments) and not enough exploring options that might. The Pew folks suggest: giving news organizations a cut of the fees we pay ISPs, like we do with TV broadcasters; turn mass news websites into portals for commercial activity (example: an Amazon widget on the Book Review page that lets you buy the book right there); the Newsweek model I’ve discussed before, of subscriber offerings for elite niche audiences.  All three suggestions have potential, though I wonder if the first isn’t just a proxy for state supported media, since we’re eventually headed towards free public broadband access in most markets.

Also, the Pew crowd say there was more news content produced about politics with increasing frequency in 2008 than in previous elections but that it was more reactive, passive and less investigatory than in year’s past. That’s quite a rebuttal to those who see citizen-media as somehow replacing the Fourth Estate. Some of these citizen/professional partnerships, however, might just do it; here’s to hoping the recession brings on some more of those.

Apocalypse 18: Is journalism a real job?

By , 28 February, 2009, 9 Comments

There was much talk during the stimulus debate about what constituted a real job, and therefore, how many jobs the Obama folks could take credit for “creating or saving.” Journalists, who may have their own bailout bill on the Hill soon, have been grappling with this question for some time.

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Apocalypse 17.5: Brownie Points only go so far

By , 17 February, 2009, No Comment

My reaction to Jim McDermott:
NPR and PBS are great because they provide access to consumers who cant pay for fancy digital cable to get their MSNBC but the reason it works is that in terms of keeping content independent, and the wages they pay to keep top talent, NPR and PBS still have to compete with MSNBC and CNN et al. If ALL media were publicly financed, ie if you had a state controlled news media, that would be not so great: You’d get into sticky situations like the one that ensnared the BBC over Gaza. [To his credit, Rep. McDermott acknowledged this danger when we spoke.]

The other “nonprofit” model that I’ve heard bandied about is the one used at educational institutions, ie funding journalism by contributions to an endowment. News flash, folks: endowments are a big part of how universities stay alive, yes, but they also CHARGE FOR the end product.

The question is, are you as a consumer more likely to be persuaded that yes, you ARE actually okay clicking through an ad or more likely to be persuaded that yes, you ARE actually okay paying to read the site. I think in the end consumers will have to give ground on one of the two, unless we decide that journalism is a non-profession and shouldn’t be self-sustaining financially at all, but instead a pet project people do on the side for free while paying their bills with something else. Even if I weren’t a journo myself, I’d be unenthused by this option–I WANT to read/watch/listen to coverage of an issue from someone who spends 16 out of every 24 hours on that issue, not someone who has a day job doing something else entirely.

Apocalypse 17: Brownie points for experimentation

By , 15 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I posted earlier this week that one of the few upsides of this economy is the cover it provides for newsrooms to make a bunch of necessary changes that everyone has known about, and postponed, for the last decade or so. Why does a media holding company need to pay for a White House correspondent or a film reviewer for each of its papers or magazines, instead of just funding one such reporter whose content can appear in all their outlets? Why does a small town paper need to bother with national or global news at all, since readers the world over can now get access to international and national information online, and even without the web, since the local paper can get that content from the wires? In the digital economy, it makes even more sense for news outlets to focus niches of expertise and aggregate the rest from other sites. But it means a permanent downsizing of newsrooms and that’s hard to do when the rest of the economy is growing. Still, even now that editors and publishers are ready to make these cuts, no one has figured out quite how the smaller newsroom will make money. Which brings us to the second upside of a recession for media–the willingness to take risks that comes when there’s really nothing left to lose. There’ve been a few recent stories highlighting directions the media could take:

–Walter Isaacson says we could charge iTunes-style for individual digital articles, but Mike Kinsley says no one would pay for that (Note that he doesn’t have an alternative, really)
–the NYT says it might try charging for select and archived content again
–Fox has a new ad model that charges buyers more per ad, but reduces the number of ads sold in total so viewers will have less incentive to forward through the shorter commercial breaks
None of these is perfect, but I applaud anyone who is willing to head scratch a bit about devising a solution. That’s why I was so thrilled to speak a few days ago with Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott. His hometown paper is on its last legs too, and Rep. McDermott has been inspired to try to save the American newspaper industry. His solution is the out-of-the-box idea no one IN media  really likes–that news just shouldn’t be a private sector enterprise to begin with, but a nonprofit venture funded either by the state or by charitable donations, or some combination of the two. McDermott is researching a bill for the House that would set up funds, akin to those that back NPR and PBS, to support nonprofit newspapers in American communities. Here’s what he had to say:

on newspapers as a public good: “I worry that we’re losing our democracy. I don’t know whether this is just generational, but if we lose newspapers [and] everyone is gonna get the news off the internet, then a whole slug of people is just off the game. If Jefferson was right and an educated electorate[is key], then you can’t have vast numbers of people without access. [Even if we expand access to broadband], you have to be more devoted to go in search of news on the web.”

on the downsides to digitization: “It used to be that Congress had roll call voting, and it took hours, and then they made it an electronic scoreboard, and now we can pass amendment in 15 minutes. Therefore we’re no longer inconveniencing people with new amendments, [which led to an] expansion of the number of those amendements that people insert. Now [there’s a] movement to vote from their offices. This isn’t a Congress, because Congress is a coming together. You can’t influence the opinion of others if you’re not in the same room. If I thought that investigative journalism was being preserved and just print costs were being cut, that would be fine. But the decision [about what to run online] is being made by accountants not professional editors.”

How much does news reporting really influence politics day-to-day?: “Without investigative reporting, I’m gonna get away with stuff. Gotta have somebody poking me in the eye with a sharp stick to find out what’s going on. Moreover, how are we gonna communicate with constituents? [The way things are going,] It’s all gonna be done by the president in uplifting (or not so uplifting) speeches? I just want to alert people to the change taking place—are we sure this is where we wanna be going?”

Is it the message or the medium?: “I get more engagement from constituents in web community meetings than I do in live ones, but I come from the city where every software maker has an office, the city which has highest reading and movie-going numbers per capita. I guess the way everybody twenty years younger than me is zipping things around on email, [it might be okay] if there was investigative journalism available on the web. “I myself read papers from Lebanon and India online, and I do my own winnowing process, and I have people that do it for me. Managing information has become such a process and many people have just given up or can’t afford to do it.”

I have a few bones to pick with Rep. McDermott’s argument, but I’ll save them for tomorrow. I’d like to hear your takes first: is the notion of the news media as a private sector, for-profit enterprise fundamentally flawed or eternally doomed? are there downsides to state-subsidized media? could the NPR model ever translate to print? is it more logical to bankroll transitions to digitization or prop up the older technologies? If there’s any way to test the value of new media, it’s by sounding out some of these tough questions right here.

Apocalypse 16: What Recessions are good for

By , 10 February, 2009, 5 Comments

There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing and prognosticating about the fate of the news media in recent months, and I have certainly contributed by fair share of commentaries. But this last week I’ve seen more stories than usual.

I have maintained for some time that, conventional wisdom about the internet notwithstanding, the future actually bodes well for the big news brands, if they can buy up or successfully build niche-oriented digital subsidiaries. There have been many signs of that model emerging since I started this blog, but this week, almost all the media stories follow that trend:

1. Newsweek is finally giving up the hoax of pretending to break news, and adapting to its rightful role as an upmarket journal of center-left opinion. This fits well within the broader strategy of Newsweek’s parent company, the Washington Post Group, which can gradually turn Newsweek into the Sunday companion to the WaPo, which will become the daily pennant to/aggregator of content from the niche websites: Slate, The Big Money, The Root. Look through the bylines at these publications and you will already see signs of such staff consolidation.

2. The New York Times is doing better than Michael Hirschorn accuses them of, in part, because it is investing in such a model. Look at what is happening in the convergence with the Herald Tribune, now the Times’ international arm. Streamlining this way allows the Times to maintain its competitive advantage in the niche international political coverage while cutting costs to match the smaller revenue stream of web adverts.

3. Editor and Publisher, a trade mag that tracks these sorts of things, lays out precisely this model of the niche-specialized, cross-platform journalist (and thus implicitly of media companies set up to give specialists access to multiple platforms for their expertise). It’s certainly the most pragmatic, measured answer to the hand-wringing I have seen so far. E&P; differs from me in assuming that all the platforms are digital ones–I think print will survive as a sort of collectible that accompanies a core online model, but it’s a small point in comparison to the core issue of what kind of stories are produced and by whom.

Here’s what stands out about these stories. Amidst the very real fact of newspaper failures, these are stories about making new investments in forward-looking strategies. That makes them stories of risk-taking in the current economy but also hopeful. And that’s what recessions are good for–sometimes, a little creative destruction flushes the system and makes room, or provides cover, for companies to make positive changes. In media, for my own sake, I hope that’s right.

Apocalypse 10: What Tribune Did Wrong

By , 8 December, 2008, 2 Comments

LinkSo in case you haven’t heard, the Tribune is filing for bankruptcy. Now before all the shrill new media evangelists start celebrating, let’s take a moment to realize that this is the failure of bad management not bad journalism. Many of the Tribune papers–the Chicago Trib, the Baltimore Sun–were hallmarks of top notch reporting. And if they’d been properly run, we might have more of that top notch reporting around for longer.

But the Tribune was also the hallmark of managerial failure. As the WSJ explains, long before Sam Zell took the papers over, the Trib was in the financial hole. And while Zell undertook some smart redesigns and tried to cultivate the local focus, the community-curation, of the Web 2.0 age, he was half-hearted about it. The LA Times in particular never came to terms with the fact that it couldn’t really be a national or international news when LA readers can get that news from elsewhere. Not to mention the personality clashes among its top execs.

Meanwhile, at the Chicago Trib, Zell refused to merge an understanding of the new era’s culture with an actual embrace of the new technologies. He told reporters not to post juicy stuff online, and at least to this reader, the Trib’s website and blogs always seemed like a second class citizen to the print edition.
The message isn’t the medium, but you can’t have one without the other. Sam Zell never got all the pieces in place at the same time, but frankly, neither have most of the new media evangelists. So instead of seeing the fall of Tribune as a death sentence for print, let’s spend time trying to find a little common ground.

Apocalypse 9: Glocalism

By , 5 December, 2008, No Comment

Been having some passionate debates at Columbia about the future of media, and particularly investigative journalism. In class the other day, I suggested that the best use of investigative journalism is on a local level–where you can actually get on the streets, gumshoe-style–and that most papers should focus on reporting what happens in their backyard. If local outlets don’t do that, no one else will, and communities will suffer.

I’m persona non grata in class now, because what I said smacks of New Yorker snobbery, as though I were claiming national news as the exclusive prerogative of my city’s papers (the Times, the WSJ) and those in other big media markets (the Washington Post). But I don’t consider the Times and the WSJ to be New York papers. These are international titles, and even when international news happens here (ie at the Stock Exchange or the UN), I don’t look at that as New York news. Real New York papers–the Post and the Daily News–report just on New York, and that’s as it should be.

An example: the Daily News won a Pulitzer last year for its coverage of the medical fallout 9/11 had on the emergency workers who spent time doing rescue work at Ground Zero. They’d have missed that one if they’d been busy with a national or international story. In other words, I’d be just as incensed if the Daily News got themselves a Pentagon reporter as I am when I hear about a Washington bureau for a local paper from the Midwest or the South.

The problem, as one of my classmates pointed out last night, is that very few people consume as much news as I do (most people have lives). So while I can read the WSJ, the WaPo and the Times for national and international information and then get local headlines from the NY1 TV station, many Americans want everything together. Going too local will reinforce the parochialism many foreigners find irksome about Americans.

It’s not that readers in cities outside New York and D.C. don’t deserve to hear about national news; it’s that their papers should not squander resources looking for it at the expense of local beats. That’s what wire services are for.

I’m not alone in looking for a news universe that is geographically segmented. Take a look at these readership figures for the top 5 visited news websites:

New York Times 707 764 000 — 186,178,000 — 163,844,000
Wall Street Journal Online — 107,333,000 — 77,536,000

No local outlet is level with the nationals. But the one that comes closest is, the website of the Boston Globe, because the Globe has smartly zeroed in on exclusively local coverage: Massachusetts stories and local sports scores. Today, there’s only one national story on the whole front page; it’s way at the bottom and it’s coming from the AP.

The real crisis, then, is what to do about wire-style reporting as the Associated Press hurdles towards collapse. Someone needs to devise a system for national and international news to be fed to papers for whom it’s not, and should not be, the primary bread and butter. CNN is starting its own wire service, and there’s ProPublica, but there’s no guarantee these business models will work any better than the AP’s. I’d like to see more activity and experimentation in this field–are there projects out there I don’t know about?

Apocalypse 8: How Dare They?

By , 20 October, 2008, 2 Comments

That’s the reaction, apparently, of many newspaper editors to the AP these days. It seems some mid-size papers are opting out of the wire service, aiming to fill their pages exclusively with their own content and cut their costs.

It makes sense: when a smaller paper uses an AP story about a major international event, most of its readers are likely to turn to a major international outlet–print or online–for that information anyway. The city papers of America would be well-served to focus on local content, and they can report that without the AP.

More interesting, however, is the fact that the AP can now get on without these papers: it puts its stories on its own website, where it can monetize them directly through advertising. Really minute-by-minute breaking news often stays there while items that develop into clear cut narratives get picked up by the member newspapers, creating a second revenue stream. Indeed, the AP is, financially, lot more than the sum of its (newspaper) parts:

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